Steelers, Seahawks in Super Bowl matchup that appears to be even


SEATTLE -- The contrasts between the Steelers and the Seahawks make this a fascinating Super Bowl matchup.

Add a few subplots, and Pittsburgh vs. Seattle could be one of the best ever.

When you think Super Bowl, it`s hard not to think of the old Steeler dynasties of Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann, and Mean Joe Greene. Going into its sixth title game, the franchise`s storied history - and the more recent success of coach Bill Cowher`s teams - would make Pittsburgh seem like the seasoned contender.

Seattle, by contrast, is untested as a franchise. Though the Seahawks actually have more players with Super Bowl experience, the Seahawks are going for the first time in their 30-year history and last week won their first playoff game in 21 years.

Consider history, and things look good for Pittsburgh. Consider this season, though, and it works the other way.

The Seahawks entered the playoffs as the NFC`s top-seeded team. The Steelers were the last seed in the AFC, the first sixth-seed ever to make it to the big game and only the second team ever to get there by winning three games on the road.

Oddsmakers favor the Steelers by 3 1/2 points for the game in Detroit in two weeks, presumably because they are the STEELERS, with four titles in six years in the 1970s. Seattle is a historically faceless franchise, even with running back Shaun Alexander easily capturing this year`s MVP honors.

There`s one sure human-interest footnote: Pittsburgh running back Jerome Bettis will get to play his first Super Bowl in his hometown, a fitting conclusion to a 13-year career that is sure to end with Bettis in fifth place on the career rushing list.

And look for other subplots: the coaching similarities, the Seahawks` outstanding rookie linebackers - and a close, hard fought game.

The way these teams are playing now make that seem like a real possibility.

Seattle`s 34-14 victory over Carolina in the NFC title game Sunday was its 13th win in 14 games. The only loss was the regular-season finale, when the Seahawks rested their starters for most of the game in Green Bay.

And Pittsburgh`s 34-17 win in Denver was its seventh in a row, and the Steelers consider every one of them a playoff game - they started 7-5 and needed every win just to get in.

Start with the quarterbacks.

Pittsburgh`s Ben Roethlisberger, who had five interceptions in two playoff games as a rookie last season, has only one in three postseason games this year and has thrown for three touchdowns.

``It has been like night and day,`` Roethlisberger said after Sunday`s game. ``I`m seeing things a lot better and really understanding the team.``

Seattle`s Matt Hasselbeck, who had lost his first two playoff games as a starter, has also blossomed in these playoffs. He was 20-of-28 for 219 yards and two touchdowns Sunday; the week before, when Alexander was lost with a concussion in the first quarter, Hasselbeck carried the Seahawks past Washington.

Alexander showed no ill effects of the injury Sunday, carrying 32 times for 132 yards and two TDs.

And the defense?

The Steelers have been traditionally known for it and were all over Denver`s Jake Plummer on Sunday, forcing two interceptions and sacking him three times.

But Seattle`s defense, overshadowed by the NFL`s highest-scoring offense in the regular season, showed Sunday what it can do Sunday by shutting down the league`s hottest postseason QB, the Panthers` Jake Delhomme. They did it with pressure up the middle, making him throw off his back foot and keeping him from getting the ball to Steve Smith, by far his most dangerous receiver.

Overall, they shut out the Carolina offense - Smith`s 59-yard punt return was the only score until the game was out of hand - and Delhomme, who had thrown only two interceptions in six games, threw three.

The coaches are another even match.

Seattle`s Mike Holmgren and Pittsburgh`s Cowher both became head coaches in 1992, and are the league`s two longest-tenured in that position. Cowher has been with Pittsburgh for his whole career; Holmgren moved to Seattle in 1999.

Holmgren won one Super Bowl with the Packers and lost another. Cowher`s Steelers lost the 1996 Super Bowl to Dallas and are 2-4 in AFC title games, but the fact that they`ve been to six in the past 12 years speaks volumes about his consistency as a coach.

There might be one factor favoring the Steelers.

They play one of the most effective 3-4 defenses in the NFL, blitzing linebackers from different angles, usually starting with Joey Porter from the outside.

Seattle played only one 3-4 all season - against Dallas - and had all kinds of trouble with it, finally winning 13-10 by scoring 10 points in the final 40 seconds. The Cowboys held the Seahawks, who finished second in the NFL yards per game with 370 to 289 yards by jamming nine and 10 men at the line of scrimmage and bumping Seattle`s receivers.

``It`s different,`` said center Robbie Tobeck, who played in the 1999 Super Bowl with Atlanta. ``They have a great defensive line. Fortunately, we have a couple of weeks to prepare for them.``

What could also help the Seahawks is that despite all of Pittsburgh`s Super Bowl experience as a franchise, only one Steeler has been there - little-used cornerback Willie Williams, a starter on that `96 team.

Seattle actually has five players who have been there with other teams: wide receiver Joe Jurevicius; Tobeck; defensive end Grant Wistrom; defensive tackle Chuck Darby; and punter Tom Rouen.

But the Seahawks aren`t quite ready to think about the Steelers quite yet.

``I watched their game and they`re awfully good,`` Holmgren said of the Steelers. ``But I`ve got a dinner reservation and I`ll round up the women in my family and I`ll think about Pittsburgh tomorrow.``

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